Monday, June 02, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Chris Clark

And the last winger we’ll look at…

Chris Clark

Theme: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘it might have been!’”

Chris Clark played 18 games this season. In his 17th game – on November 28th – he hit some bad ice (although on the Verizon Center surface this year, “some” applies more to the patches of good ice one might have found), injured his groin, and saw his season go up in a spray of snow (he played one more game – nine minutes on January 13th that saw him leave the ice for the last time this season after one shift in the third period of a 6-4 loss to Philadelphia).

It was a waste on a lot of levels. His abbreviated ten-game splits (ok, one split and part of another) suggest he was on his way to a season that would have constituted a step back from his previous two seasons, each of which saw him set personal career highs in goals scored. But the statistics are a bit misleading...

In Clark’s first seven games, he failed to register a single point and was minus-2. This might have been a function of his playing mostly third-line minutes with a struggling Matt Pettinger or a defense-oriented Boyd Gordon. While such a line looked as if it could provide some offensive punch – on paper – at the start of the year, it was not getting the hoped-for results.

On October 24th, Clark was returned to the top line, where he set those personal highs the previous two years. He responded immediately, with two goals on three shots in a 5-3 win against Tampa Bay. That set off a 10-game stretch in which Clark went 5-3-8, +2. He was looking like the Clark of the previous two seasons. But it was in that tenth game in which he skated off – seven minutes into the third period – with the injury that would essentially end his season.

What the season would have looked like if Clark had not been injured is hard to speculate about. The top line of Ovechkin-Nylander-Kozlov on opening night in Atlanta became Ovechkin-Nylander-Clark in late October, then became Ovechkin-Backstrom-Kozlov when Nylander went on the shelf. Would Clark have been a more productive right wing on the top line than Viktor Kozlov? Hard to say. Kozlov didn’t put up extraordinary numbers (they were consistent with his career averages), but is perhaps a more adept puck handler than Clark and a good fit for the games Ovechkin and Backstrom play.

The interesting part now becomes what happens in the fall. Clark has a new contract taking effect in 2008-2009, and he could end up on the right side on any of the top three lines. With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kozlov, Nylander, and Semin all being of the top-six forward specie; with Sergei Fedorov perhaps returning; and with Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr competing for time on those lines, it is hard – at the moment – to see Clark on either of the top two lines. But we said that last summer, too. And Clark didn’t miss a beat when he was moved to the top line in October…

“What might have been” is what 2007-2008 was for Clark. It was a waste, a product of bad ice and bad luck, and for that, Clark gets…


The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Eric Fehr

We’re getting to the end of the look at wingers over the past year, and that brings us to…

Eric Fehr

Theme: “Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Eric Fehr was on a steady rise through his apprenticeship after being selected 18th overall in the 2003 entry draft. In his last two years of junior hockey following his selection by the Caps, Fehr had seasons of 50 and 59 goals with Brandon in the Western Hockey League. He followed that up with a respectable 25 goals in 70 games in his first year as a pro at Hershey, then 22 goals in 40 games with the Bears the following season.

Then, in February 2007, Fehr came up lame. An injury that defied treatment and (at least for disclosure purposes) diagnosis kept Fehr on the shelf for the better part of a full year, interrupting what seemed like a steady march from juniors to the right side of the top line of the Caps. Eventually diagnosed (or disclosed) as a herniated disk, the injury threatened to delay significantly, if not completely derail Fehr’s future with the Caps. But he returned to the ice to play 11 games in Hershey and 23 with the Caps in 2007-2008. Those 23 games with the parent club were not especially noteworthy…

* three games

…but his return to the ice was the key. He had to come back before he could succeed. There were, however, two games that might have given Caps fans a hint of things to come. The first was his eighth game back, on February 26th against Minnesota. It happened to be “deadline day,” and the story line that night had nothing to do with Eric Fehr (it was the Caps trading for a goalie and not trading the one they had). But Fehr had a goal and was on the ice for all four goals the Caps scored (finishing +4 for the night) in 11:58 of ice time in a 4-1 Caps win. Less than a week later, Fehr notched three assists in a 10-2 win over Boston in which he played 12:10.

Fehr will be turning 23 just about the time the Caps take the ice on the 2008-2009 season. If one looks at the 17 players selected ahead of Fehr in that 2003 draft, only the Rangers’ Hugh Jessiman has been more disappointing (for the same reasons, by and large – injuries). Except for Jessiman, who has yet to play in the NHL, Fehr has, by far, the fewest games played of the 18 players (48, compared to 112 for Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn). That is what the missing year has cost him.

Fehr is a restricted free agent, but it would seem unlikely that a healthy Fehr will be anywhere but in Washington next season. A goal scorer of his potential , who – absent injury – was on a steady upward climb to the NHL, doesn’t seem to be the sort of player the Caps will give up on. For both Fehr and the Caps, the quote from Buddha with respect to endurance seems relevant. The 2008-2009 season could be an important one in Fehr’s development and his future. But for his 2007-2008 season, the only result we can find in it is…


The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Quintin Laing

And now…

Quintin Laing

Theme: “53 to block”

If Quintin Laing was a square on the game show, “Hollywood Squares,” no doubt you’d hear that a lot. For it is what Laing brings to the game – an uncanny ability to throw himself in front of speeding pucks. His statistics over 39 games do not leap off the page…

By any measure, he is a player who is likely to have to scratch and claw for a roster spot at the NHL level. So, he does what he can, and what he can do is block shots. Among forwards, Laing finished 23rd in the league in blocked shots. But here is the amazing statistic – among the top 300 forwards in blocked shots, Laing was one of two to average more than one blocked shot per game, and his 1.33 blocked shots-per-game led all forwards among the top 300 in total blocked shots (the Blues’ Ryan Johnson deserves a nod here, finishing .004 blocked shots-per-game behind Laing…it really is a small group).

Laing also complemented that aspect of his game with some otherwise physical play, averaging 1.26 hits per game, seventh on the team and fifth among forwards (late-season acquisition Matt Cooke and injured Chris Clark not among those counted here, each having played fewer than 20 games with the Caps this season).

Unfortunately, Laing’s contributions are not as frequent at the other end of the ice. He was 1-5-6, +4 in his 39 games was the worst points-per-game average among all Caps forwards not named “Pettinger” (“Brashear,” too, but his role is unique on this club), as was his shooting percentage (one goal on 48 shots for 2.1 percent). However, his lone goal was a game-winner – December 10th in a 3-2 win over New Jersey. Seeing as how the margin for the Caps making the playoffs was two points, that goal is as important as any in this season.

As noted above, Laing is likely to be one of those guys who is always going to struggle to stick on an NHL roster, especially on a contending team. It is worth noting that Laing played in only four games after the trading deadline, when the Caps upgraded their forwards with Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke. Of Laing, whose effort cannot be slighted, it might be said that one wishes his talent matched that effort -- he'd be one helluva player.

Laing is very good at one aspect of the game (blocked shots), decent at another (hits), but almost non-existent in others (scoring, passing). In grading, that makes for an A in one class, perhaps a B in another…and iffy grades for the rest of the “semester,” but some credit for the level of effort applied. It is with that in mind that for Laing, he grades out at…